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Grand Sichuan International (New York City NY)
Reviewed by: Harley Spiller
Fall Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(3) page: 11, 17, and 18
In the mysterious world of John Zhuang, success invariably begets success, and the law of the jungle may well apply in his New York City restaurant world. It is impossible to peg which of Gotham's hundreds of diners lives up to its sign claiming 'World’s Best Coffee,' or which of the dozens of Ray's or Patsy's is THE 'original pizza.' Thus, it is tricky to know which of New York's half-dozen 'Grand Sichuan' restaurants is best. A man named John Zhuang surely has something to do with all of them, but it has been very difficult to track the links in this 'chain.'
I have tried in vain for years to meet and speak with Mr. Zhuang, who I hear is the mastermind behind the original Grand Sichuan, on Canal at the corner of Bowery smack in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Chinatown. Favored by many Chinese ex-pats in New York, this restaurant's signature Spicy Braised Beef is a riff on a famous dish from the city of Zigong. Originally made with water buffalo and salt water, this simple eight-hundred-year-old preparation was named Water Boiling Beef. At Grand Sichuan, it arrives in a glass casserole fairly sparkling with musky beef, earnest hot peppers, and a juicy broth aboil with the inimitable tingle-buzz-numb of hua jiao, known in China as Sichuan flower pepper.
About a decade ago, when Chelsea's old Checker cab garages gave way to stark white art galleries, Grand Sichuan branched out and launched Grand Sichuan International. It was, and still is, on Ninth Avenue at Twenty-third Street. The most distinguishing feature of this Grand Sichuan westside outpost is a series of ever-morphing menus.
More like books, the menus have encyclopedic entries taking up page after page with descriptions of uber-poetic dishes like Green Parrot with a Red Mouth, telling about its whole spinach with green leaves and red roots; and the Phoenixes are Gone but Still Roll on the River's Waves duck soup with sliced turnip and pork. The cryptic bill of fare has a dish dedicated to Princess Di (sliced chicken, asparagus and black mushroom), and even devotes a page or two to explaining: How To Read This Menu.
Sometimes Grand Sichuan International's menu beguiles with statements such as: We try our best to use the least oil to cook the healthy food. Other times, it admonishes the timid saying: Some Food Materials You May Not Have Eaten Before, like beef tendon, beef tripe, sea cucumber and so on. It also adds: Choose Food Materials Carefully and [avoid] Misadventure.
Whoever writes the menus for uptown offshoots of Grand Sichuan do their level best to broker authentic Chinese food to the American market. Still, the upshot of reading this complex Chinese food lore can be utter confusion. Wish I could spend a little time with the proprietor(s) to work on clarifying the difficult Chinese-to-English menu translations.
Nowadays, there is also a Grand Sichuan International on 745 on Ninth Avenue in the fifties; another at 227 Lexington Avenue; and a two-year old sibling, overlooking the home of the hippy, on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. I do not know if Mr. Zhuang, like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and other capitalists in the restaurant business, opens many places knowing full well he will turn them over when the time is ripe for moving on. I do know that I have enjoyed a few dozen meals over the past three years at Grand Sichuan Eastern at 1049 Second Avenue near Fifty-sixth Street. Many of the dishes here remain unchanged for Western palates making this restaurant an uptown spot for pungent ethnic food cooked with quality and quantity of spice reminiscent of the motherland.
The front window of Grand Sichuan Eastern features stories and photographs of Mr. Zhuang hard at work, pushing his way into the nooks and crannies of China's Sichuan province to unearth traditional preparations. He not only procures time-honored recipes from wizened chefs and home cooks, he also exports the requisite (and hard to find elsewhere) ingredients, tools and serving ware. Jacqueline M. Newman, editor of these pages, has tasted many of these dishes in Sichuan and says "he captures the essence of many a dish and has an uncanny ability to get things spot on."
The menu at the Second Avenue place covers a huge range, from searing Sichuan succulence to plenty of what Chinese restaurant professional Ed Schoenfeld disparages as the sole taste of most Chinese American food, "crispy sweet." Take Sesame Chicken for example, North America's thirst for this dish has made it a number one chef's special on nearly every Chinese-American menu from Cancun to Canada, yet the typical preparation would hardly be recognizable in China. Yes, Grand Sichuan serves candy-coated deep-fries. They have their egg drop and egg roll horrors, too.
In an attempt to capitalize on the current craze for dim sum, they sell har gow (shrimp dumplings), but alas, the little packets seem to have lost their soul somewhere in the freezer. Steer clear also of their all-too-familiar American Chinese Food. The Fried Rice is dull, the Lobster with Garlic tame and predictable, and so on.
Despite Grand Sichuan's offer to alter dishes according to diner requests, it has been my experience that it is wisest to inform the server that you enjoy very spicy food; my recommendation: DO NOT request changes to the menu until you become a regular. Ordering a mild version of the classic spicy braised beef mentioned above, for example, yielded a muddle. Instead of looking to satisfy your taste memories, venture bravely into the mysterious world of John Zhuang, where there are dozens of exciting and rarely-seen dishes waiting to excite, delight, and tantalize even the most jaded of palates.
Grand Sichuan does vegetables like no other Chinese restaurant. Green beans or broccoli? Forget about these veggies, you can easily cook them at home. Instead, reach for something like snow pea leaves, which taste like sugar snap peas with a spinach texture. Or how about some sautéed loofah? In the West, most people recoil when they see loofah on a menu because they know it as a hard sponge for the bath. Turns out the beige back-scrubber we know is a dried version of this perfectly edible zucchini-like super vegetable also called silk squash. Grand Sichuan Eastern turns the pale green and ivory colored squash into an elegant and simple dish. Chefs here are not afraid to deploy their cleavers, and they cut most vegetables into small uncommon shapes.
Their lotus root, usually left in rounds that resemble old-fashioned telephone dials, are here cut into tiny one-third-inch wedges and tossed in the wok with or without pungent fermented black beans. This technique gives many more edges to the somewhat bland underwater root, enabling it to pick up savor and flavor from the heat of the wok.
Potatoes, a Northern Chinese favorite, are julienned and their thin threads are fast sautéed with a choice of brown, red or vinegar sauces. The latter one is the recipe that best allows the flavor of potatoes to shine through. The dry and sautéed bitter melon, or any number of seasonal vegetables like mustard green, are cut into succotash-sized segments. Try the Shanghai baby bok cai, sliced in eighths but left whole lengthwise, a technique that enables thorough cleaning of the leafy greens often laden with hard-to-reach grit. Stay away from #32, the Cold Cucumber with Garlic which has been cut into pretty shapes but tastes of uncooked oil, scallion and cilantro, without any evidence of garlic.
From the section called: Chengdu Bean Curd Flower series, you may wish to order a vegetarian version, with soft and silky tofu, soy nuts, pickled mustard green and an unidentified black gooey product. The appetizer called Eggplants with Sichuan Wonder Sauce earns its unique moniker. It looks like a flank of fish, buried under a burnished brick-colored paste thick with peanuts and chile. The cold eggplant is cooked to perfection, maintaining both its shape and succulence. It sure does make one wonder how do they do it?
Cool off on a summer day with Grand Sichuan's cold appetizer of beancurd and celery, or warm up in winter with spicy Shredded Dry Bean Curd and Celery. The most exciting vegetable on the menu though, they call: Chong Cabbage. This aromatic dish is the essence of Sichuan cooking, with its liberal use of both hot pepper and Sichuan peppers. Finely minced green vegetable leaves are marinated with salt and vinegar, yielding a pickle that tastes like the mustardiest mustard ever mustered without mustard. Like a relish, Chong Cabbage is served cold and as a tiny portion. There is plenty to go around though, because this appetite whetter is very, very spicy, hitting orally and nasally. It is both cooling and killer spicy. Waitresses warn Westerners off this most pungent preparation, but there’s a reason why it is often out of stock; it is simply sold out.
Another excellent starter is Chengdu Dumplings. These soft and lightly minced pork-filled packet are slurpable in their wheat-flour wrappers. They come six to a bowl, pre-sauced. These thermally and spicy hot snacks leave your palate with a hearty-toasty-chile afterglow. Shanghai soup dumplings are an attempt by the kitchen to keep up with dining trends. Better leave them to cooks from Shanghai, where the trick to putting soup inside dumplings get stellar billing.
Selections change routinely. While the Chengdu Peasant Family Fish is no longer on the menu, servers have assured me they will gladly make it if one asks for Fish with Corn. A whole tilapia is steamed and bedded in a chunky puree of green bell pepper studded with fresh yellow corn kernels and hot red peppers. Try it and you might conclude that being part of a peasant family in Sichuan’s capital city does have distinct advantages.
At the other end of the seafood spectrum is the fancy Dry and Sautéed Shrimp with Minced Bread. This is one of several dishes listed as favorites of Mao, the famous Hunanese despot who liked hearty Braised Fatty Pork and Chestnuts in Brown Sauce, truly Sour and Spicy Squid, Sautéed Duck with Bitter Melon, and other full-flavored belly-builders. Chairman Mao's shrimp are neither beheaded nor breaded. Rather, their big platter is filled with moist fried shellfish, nestled naked on a plateful of golden-brown crumbs with the texture and look of wheat germ. Scallion shards, sesame seeds, and garlic toasted until brown provide a cereal-like crunchiness. You will scrape the platter until all that remains is an oily sensation on your lips.
Another category on the menu, Chengdu Cut Spicy Pepper Series, yields dishes like baby cuttlefish with sumptuous bias-cut hot peppers more flavorsome than spicy. Perhaps the most famous Sichuan dish is Ma La Yu, a numbingly spicy fish. Here, fish filets are simmered in soup hotter than Hades and redder than a British fox-hunting jacket. The broth is oily and most customers simply fish out the flanks of sea bass, leaving the liquid behind. An authentic non-spicy version is also worthy with the same filets in a soup that tastes like rich chicken broth. The server assured us there was no chicken or other meat used, and that the heartiness was derived simply by using a lot of fish. Another series of dishes, the Spicy and Aromatic series, includes a tomato-based whole crab casserole. The one time I tried it, the dish was tasty but suffered from nearly meatless immature crustaceans.
Spicy Squid with the Green Tea sounds like an inaccurate translation of sa cha, the Chinese barbecue sauce. The Chinese word for tea is cha and the words for this dish sound almost like the cha in sa cha. This theory was proved incorrect when a squadron of cephalopods arrived on a plate with an upside down tea glass in the center. The liquid slowly leaked out, and I presumed the intention was to help keep the squid meat juicy. However, I learned from a server, who insisted that the tea glass was strictly for decoration, arguing that the dish was a physical iteration of the Chinese words in 'dragon's fire ball' and a symbol of great power.
Pork is well represented. Particularly good is Chengdu Spicy and Aromatic Pig Blood with rectangular cakes of spicy blood with scallions, hot peppers, and huajiao in a fine and super funky stew liquid just on the fringe of being too spicy to eat. The kitchen also reaches to Central Asia for a classic Xinjiang dish, Pork Ribs with Cumin, a spice not often used in Han-Chinese kitchens. The dry-spiced rib-meat practically jumps off its tiny bones.
Chinese cuisine has long-prized chicken and recipes are considered regal if they 'waste' a chicken; i. e.: a whole chicken is long-cooked to extract its essence to flavor a dish, but the royal platter is brought to table without any chicken pieces whatsoever. Grand Sichuan uses two kinds of chicken: a) chicken paste that has been extruded from machines into breast-like strips (akin to turkey loaf or pseudo-crab sticks) and b) chicken that is alive until just before preparation. The menu explains: "If you pay a little more attention, you will notice that very few Chinese order a chicken dish in a Chinese restaurant. There are two reasons. First, chicken [is] raised in back yards in China and [on] farms in America, [making] American chicken much less [tasty]. Second, chickens in China are cut and processed right before the cooking; on the other hand, there is a long way to process the chicken in America: chicken [are] cut, refrigerated, and packed in meat mills, shipped to distributors, then shipped to suppliers, then delivered to restaurants, then the cooks cut, marinate and refrigerate the chicken [to be used over the course of several days]. In this way, the chicken lose their taste completely. Although the live chicken are more expensive, try these new concept chicken dishes and figure out the differences."
Table after a table of Westerners marvel at seemingly fat, bone and gristle-free dishes such as Chicken with Broccoli while more sophisticated diners might select Chicken with White Fruit (gingko nuts) or chopped Soy Sauce Chicken served on the bone. Recently, Grand Sichuan offered free-range chicken in a spicy preparation shot through with many different dried and reconstituted ingredients. The marrow-rich dish tasted grand to me but its funkiness was not appreciated by my table-mates. A sure-fire crowd pleaser, though, is one of the most popular dishes at Grand Sichuan. It is #S22 and called Spicy and Aromatic Chong Qing Chicken. The nuggets of well-sautéed chicken are served in a round metal pan. Like gungbao chicken without the peanuts, this macho dish is fully-flavored. Considering that dozens and dozens of dried hot peppers obscure the bits of poultry, they are surprisingly yet only mildly spicy.
Second Sister's Diced Rabbit is but one of Grand Sichuan Eastern's less common offerings. They also serve what the Chinese call field chicken (which is frog in English), baby cuttlefish, and other gourmet delicacies. Here, frog legs are available in several preparations, including a sour marmalade-colored dish listed in the Pickled Spicy Pepper menu series of dishes. Here, frog meat is moist and flavorsome, the taste true to its categorization as an amphibian, something between land (chicken thigh) and sea (mild, firm fish).
A new page of dishes is added to the menu to celebrate each Chinese New Year. Especially intriguing for the Year of the Chicken was Two Flavor Sword Clams. This especially pretty plate of cold razor clams comes in two styles. An oily green sauce made of pureed cilantro is one, the other an orange-toned variation of the house red sauce. It was a winner. Another standout New Year’s special was whole marrow bone presented upright with a plastic drinking straw inserted into the hollow. Sometimes, Grand Sichuan even creates special dishes for American holidays like their Quick Sauteed Shredded Pumpkin or the Sauteed Turkey with String Bean; they were seen on a Halloween and a Thanksgiving menu, respectively.
The dry version of wide rice noodle with beef is passable but pasta is not a specialty of low-lying Sichuan, the home of many pungent dishes created to make it easier to, as they say: swallow rice, the provincial staple. Grand Sichuan Eastern’s only passable pasta plate is wide rice noodle with beef, dry style. This Sichuan spot has a small list of seasonal sweets, some can be found in the Sichuan Appetizers column, including a yet-untasted Stick Rice Cage on Leafs and Mashed Sweet Potato Balls with sesame seeds. Their Sweet Rice Ball Soup will clean the hot peppers off your palate; their rich potion of Lotus and Red Date Soup recalls African-American sweet potato pie in that a little goes a long way. Complimentary fresh fruit and fortune cookies round out every meal.
It is great to have an authentic and unpretentious Chinese restaurant in midtown. Many of Grand Sichuan Eastern's servers have put in long hours daily, for years. Their large and bustling staff works hard to satisfy customers. While there are the inevitable mis-communications between customer and kitchen, there is always a senior staffer around who will work hard to bridge the ocean.
Tired of the same old Chinese food? Try Grand Sichuan's easy-to-swallow experiments like White Feathered Egrets Fly Over Broad Water Fields (sliced shrimp with bean curd in brown sauce). Is there a romantic supper in your future? Your mate will surely swoon for the elegantly-named baby chicken dish, We Would Be Two Love-birds Flying Wing to Wing on High. Whatever the occasion, bring your appetite and your reading glasses to dinner. Grand Sichuan Eastern's menu will leave your lips and your imagination aglow. And, do note some items written about above are from Grand Sichuan’s menu, their text’s edited for clarity.
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